Equine 101: Observing Behavior and How Horses Communicate

With the exception of Mr. Ed horses don’t communicate with words. They learn to understand us over some time but if you want to get to know a horse you must learn their language.

Learning the way horses communicate can save you from injury or bodily harm.  Knowing the signs of pain, fear, and anxiety can save you from damaging your horse.  Communicating effectively with your horse will give you a deeper connection to it so that you have a great mutually rewarding relationship. 

Horses use their body to communicate to each other.  Their tails and ears are the main devices used in communication.

Fleischman:  Horses have a gland in their mouth that is associated with smell.  When there is an unfamiliar scent the horse will make this funny face to single it out and register the scent in  its memory.

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This horse was actually trained to “smile” but Fleischman looks pretty much like this.

Snaking:  Snaking is when a horse lowers its head and acts aggressively toward another creature.  This is often done as a way to show dominance and to drive other horses away.  You’ll often see stallions with this behavior but any horse is capable of this type of aggression.

A lowered head is relaxing to a horse

A raised head is alertness but while you’re riding a raised head could also indicate pain

Above left:  This horse is very alert and anxious.  While you can’t rule out pain from the picture, watching the horse in person made it clear that nerves were playing a major role in it’s head carriage.

Above right: A group of happy relaxed horses enjoying their day

Licking and chewing: a horse will lick and chew when it relaxes after something stressful


Ears:

Ears are incredible.  They can rotate 180 degrees and give many different signals.  Horses use the rotation of the ears to detect sounds on all sides of them.

Ears pinned back often means they are agitated, angry, or want space and are likely to bite.  There’s something we call a “mare stare” and you’ll know it by the grouchy face they give others.  They simply don’t want to be bothered.

Ears forward or backward, the horse is paying attention to whatever is in front of or behind.

Ears relaxed and off they are not fully aware of the surroundings.  You’ll want to let the horse know that you’re approaching so you don’t startle it.

Flicking: trying to locate the source of danger or some source of something in the distance.

Above left: “Mare Stare” I know this mare well and despite the mare stare she’s actually very sweet and cuddly.  She wants her breakfast.

Above Center: The horse is paying attention to me as I enter the paddock.

Above Right: The horse is paying attention to me but listening to his buddies the the neighboring paddock.


Tails:

Raised tail: A raises tail is pretty common in the Arabian breed, but you’ll see a raised tail in most horses when

Raised tail to the side: You’ll see this with mares that have gone into heat.  This is an invitation to stallions that they are ready to reproduce

A raised tail pricked ears and weight on all 4 legs is an alert toward potential danger

A raised tail with prancing and defecation is a show of dominance

A raised tail and frolicking is simply delight and enjoyment

Tail Swishing: Agitation.  This agitation can be mentally or physically so you as the horseman need to be aware of the situation.  He could be shooing a fly or he could be aggravated by something that you’re doing.  You can see this often when you tighten a girth on many horses.  This can be a very rude behavior especially with a vet or farrier that needs to perform work on your horse.

A clamped tail can usually mean an inferior reprimanded horse, or one that is ready to kick/buck.  Conversely if they appear melancholy with their tails clamped they could be cold or sore in the hind end.

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A playful frolick

Legs:

PercheronsWaiting
The horse in front cocks his back leg as he patiently waits to be tacked and braided before a performance.

Stomping is a sign or irritation.  Mostly you’ll see this when flies are bad as they stomp to shoo them.

Striking out is aggressive. It means back off.  This could be a nervous and defensive reaction to something scary that’s attacking (like a plastic bag in Blades case).   You will also observe this with unruly horses or horses interacting with eachother.

Cocked hind leg is typically a sign of relaxation.  If your horse does this frequently pay attention to whether the horse switches legs or if it cocks the same leg every time.  If it’s the same leg it could also mean something hurts on the one side.

 


Reading and knowing a horse’s body language takes time and experience.  You won’t recognize everything right away but the longer you are in the horse world the more tuned in you’ll be to notice subtle cues.  At first you may mistake some postures and signals for something else.  This is normal.  All I can say is to do your best to pay attention to everything all the time.  You don’t need to be neurotic about it, just make small mental notes.

How does he appear today?

Does he seem happy?

Does he seem off?

Have there been any changes recently?

As with anything, if you’re unsure about what a horse is communicating don’t be afraid to ASK.  Ask me or ask someone that’s already at the barn.


…and of course check out the following links for more information:

TheHorse.com – Study Confirms Horses ‘Talk’ to Human Handlers

Equus Maganize – What Your Horse’s Tail Tells You

Equus Magazine – How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language

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